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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla -- Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work he goes.

Joe Schott's day begins in front of what looks like a giant forest. He's dressed for work in a white cotton shirt and green khakis, kind of like a park ranger. But it's quite obvious from the endless stream of families hopping off buses and trams -- and the Mickey Mouse ears every other kid is wearing -- that this is no ordinary park.

Schott is a Disney castmember: an employee of Walt Disney World and, more specifically, an attractions manager at Disney World's newest theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Most of the time Schott is responsible for the attractions, cast and guests in Asia -- an area of the park where the rides and stores are devoted to Asian animals and culture -- but he and several other managers trade off the "duty manager" shift, the manager in charge of the entire Animal Kingdom. This morning, Schott is the Animal Kingdom's head honcho.

Joe Schott, attractions manager for Asia at Disney World's Animal Kingdom.

But though it's a job with lots of different responsibilities, Schott makes it look like fun. After all, this is Disney.

"Part of my role is to make sure everything looks perfect, from a guest's perspective, to make sure everything is meshed together," he explains. And to get that perspective he goes around the park like a guest: he rides the rides, eats the food, browses in the stores. Schott's job is, at least partly, a walk in the park.

7:30 a.m. -- Schott's job can begin as early as 6:30 a.m. By now he's standing in front of the main gates of the Animal Kingdom. The gates will open promptly at 8 a.m., but the entrance already is buzzing with early-bird families. Disney doesn't release attendance figures for any of their parks, but Schott said Animal Kingdom gets about as many visitors per year as Disney's MGM Studios.

Schott is responsible for two types of guests: people guests and animal guests. Unlike the other Disney parks, the attractions at the Animal Kingdom include live animals. "[At the other parks] it's mechanical things: you know where they are, how they work, and if they break you know how to fix them," Schott says. "Not so here. You have to find ways to make the animals comfortable and provide the guests with an experience."

In between sentences Schott calls out, "Namaste! Good morning!" to passing guests and castmembers. "Namaste" is a local greeting in Nepal and India, he explains. "It means, 'I salute the spirit within you.' "

7:50 a.m. -- Time to get ready. Schott unlocks a huge green gate and slips into the park. After threading through a lush green landscape and saying good morning to a trio of macaws, Schott takes his place in front of the giant Tree of Life, the park's focal point.

8 a.m. -- The welcome address, blasted over the loudspeakers, means the entrances are open and guests are flooding the park. It'll take the guests about 10 minutes to get over here, he predicts, and they'll go to the Kilimanjaro Safari.

8:10 a.m. -- The first families appear. Everyone makes a beeline for the Safari.

Schott heads to the Safari, too. He wants to see how the attraction is operating this morning. "Jambo!" Schott greets the castmembers in Swahili.

Schott answers a question for a park guest.8:30 a.m. -- Schott hops into the next Safari jeep. During the trek, Schott looks as carefree as the other guests, but he's working: He keeps his eyes peeled for potential problems and notes some overhanging brush should be cleared to give guests a better view of the savanna. Behind him the guests ooh and ahh every time they see an animal, and this morning there are many: "Giraffes!" "Hippos!" "Lions!" Cameras are whirring. Schott looks pleased with the Safari. "So far, this is exactly how I thought this should be," he says.

8:45 a.m. -- Outside the ride, guests are snapping pictures of a huge gorilla. "This is the bachelor group," Schott explains as he gestures to the gorillas. "When they get older they'll challenge the big silverback." He talks loudly enough for people to overhear, and soon he's taking questions from some of the guests.

9 a.m. -- Schott wears a pager, walkie-talkie and a Secret Service-style earpiece, and he's receiving messages constantly. Disney can predict how many guests they'll have in a day, and managers have to keep track of numbers to make sure attractions don't get overcrowded. Crowd control is a running theme in a manager's mind. "Wait-time equals satisfaction," Schott says emphatically. He stops to pick up a discarded price tag and throws it in a nearby trash can.

9:30 a.m. -- "We'll make sure things are humming this morning," Schott says as he breezes through a souvenir shop. He greets the store manager. "The penny-smashing machine out there has a paper 'out of order' sign," Schott points out. The manager says the problem is being fixed. "Okay, good," Schott says. "Well, let's at least replace that paper sign with something nicer."

"I expect to see the store managers on the floor. I expect to see the restaurant managers in the kitchens, or in the restaurant," Schott says as he leaves the store. "The attractions managers, they could be anywhere. That's why we keep them on radio."

He ducks into a restaurant where an outside, glass display case is fogging up; the manager is in the kitchen, and Schott nods approvingly. The display is a good way to get morning guests thinking about where they might eat later, so it's important for guests to see the food inside the display. Schott and the manager discuss defogging techniques. "I'll revisit this one," Schott says.

9:50 a.m. -- Outside, a Tigger castmember is dancing with some of the young guests. But this is the Animal Kingdom. Where's Simba?

Schott's just leaving the restaurant when he gets an important message about the "Festival of the Lion King" show: It's been delayed. "10-4, what's the reason for the delay?" he says into the walkie-talkie as he strides over to Camp Minnie-Mickey.

10 a.m. -- The show has been delayed 15 minutes because two male leads called in sick. The stage manager assures Schott that he has replacements rushing in from other areas of Disney World.

As the stage manager notifies the crowd of the delay Schott makes a few phone calls from the theater's control booth. He's notified that the line at the Safari now has a 45-minute wait. Schott radios for new park capacity counts.

10:13 a.m. -- On his way over to the Safari, Schott gets a message that "Festival of the Lion King" has started. By the time he gets to the Safari more jeeps have been added, and the line is thinning out. The capacity counts are on target with what Disney projected for the day. "I think what we saw this morning is just more people in a concentrated group," Schott says.

10:20 a.m. -- Schott pops into his office -- a trailer behind the park -- for a meeting with Stacey Smith, the park's industrial engineer, to look at maps of the park and pinpoint areas where guest traffic could be streamlined.

10:45 a.m. -- By now the park is in full swing. Families in tank tops, shorts and water bottles are sitting down for the "Tarzan Rocks!" show in DinoLand. Several families are leaving early. Schott says a castmember at the exit will ask walkouts why they've left, and Disney can use the feedback to make changes to the show's format. "This is an example of where we need to tighten up the show," he says as more people get up to leave.

But most people are staying and rocking along with Tarzan and Jane. "This is what it's all about here," Schott says as he motions to a dancing kid, a little girl with the name "Brittany" painted on her shirt. "If Brittany's having a good time, her parents are along for the ride."

11 a.m. -- People at the Tarzan show will head to the Dinosaur ride next, Schott predicts, and he walks over to the ride to make sure the cast there is preparing for the barrage of families. The cast is adding an extra car to the thrill ride, and Schott oversees the addition from the control booth.

Satisfied everything there is moving smoothly, Schott pops in at an otter training session. The trainers take him behind the otters' habitat to watch.

11:30 a.m. -- The midday temperature is in the high 80s, and the humidity is oppressive, but it doesn't seem to be affecting Schott. "They have great barbecue here," he remarks at the Flame Tree Grill. He picks a secluded seat under a ceiling fan.

The restaurant's cashier reminds Schott to "have a wild day." These type of remarks are called "rolling the show," Schott explains, and these subtle remarks keep the guests reminded of the special Animal Kingdom experience.

12:30 p.m. -- Schott's shift as the duty manager is over, and Steve Riggs, who's pulled up a chair at the lunch table, will handle the afternoon. Schott rattles off a rundown of the morning's events. "The entrance experience was good; the Safari, I've got grooming tips for 'em; [parking] counts not coming as frequently as they should..." Schott says the otter trainers should try to make the training more of a guest experience. "It was cool, but there's a level, and then there's a Disney level," he says. Riggs nods.

1 p.m. -- The rest of the afternoon Schott will spend working as the attractions manager in Asia and on internal Disney issues. There's the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's conference, which Disney is hosting, and he has some meetings with his staff.

As he heads over to Asia, Schott's manager uniform makes him an instant target for questions, and he gives each family his full attention. One father wants to know where a good lunch spot is. "Right over there's the Flame Tree Grill," Schott says. "Their barbecue's awesome."

The family hesitates and checks their Animal Kingdom map, but their son is convinced. "Let's go there, he says it's awesome," he points out. Schott grins as he walks off to visit the tigers.

Animal magnetism

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Joe Schott is among those few in the travel industry whose boss is a 4-foot-tall talking mouse.

Schott, an Orlando native, started his Disney career in 1981, when he worked as a cruise guide at the Jungle Cruise in Disney's Magic Kingdom. After working at Epcot Center, Disney's Wide World of Sports and Disneyland Paris, he came to the Animal Kingdom in 1997 as the project coordinator for Asia, and he spent three months coordinating the park's grand-opening ceremonies in 1998.

Schott said that to get the position at Animal Kingdom, "I had to compete with some of whom I consider among the best in the business. I wanted to come to Animal Kingdom because, first and foremost, I have a love for animals. And it was a new and exciting project where I had an opportunity to own and operate my area.

"Leadership plays a key role," he added. "I felt had a good chance to learn quite a bit from this group of managers."

As an attractions manager, Schott said he makes above $50,000 a year. "But not that much more," he said with a smile.

Schott estimated that close to 3,000 castmembers work in the Animal Kingdom; he's responsible for about 500 employees in Asia. Many employees are part of an international study program.

When Disney hires new castmembers, Schott said, "they're looking for someone with a nice warm smile; someone who's animated, outgoing, who has a real need to give exceptional service.

"For example, with the cultural reps, one thing we would ask is, 'You're going to live in an Olympic village-style setup... what's the way you would explain your culture best to an American roommate,' and have them go through the conversation."

Animal Kingdom presents unique problems because of the approximately 2,000 animals that live there. Schott said the animals get the finest care possible: Disney employs their own veterinarians and operates their own animal hospital. They even grow some indigenous food on property.

"I think [the job] changed my perspective in how I view the world," Schott said. "I find myself... talking to people about various issues that they would not be informed about.

"The most exciting thing about it is watching it all happen and seeing your hard work translate into an experience for someone."

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